I am always so pleased when my guests come back again with another piece, and one such guest is the delightful Anne Chaconas. Anne, as always beating the drum for her fellow writers, reinforces what we all suspected and longed for endorsement of – the never-ending list of rules of writing are made to be broken.
Back in July, I wrote a post on my blog asking writers to please stop treating their readers like idiots. I encourage you amble on over and take a gander at it, if nothing else because it really seemed to resonate with just about anyone who read it. If you don’t feel like it, though, here’s the upshot: Don’t dumb down your prose just because you’re afraid people won’t get it. Give your readers a little more credit. Quit worrying about how many people will read your book, and instead focus putting the best story out there for the people who will read your book.
I got to thinking about that post the other day, thinking that I really needed to do another post in my STOP TREATING YOUR READERS LIKE IDIOTS movement (because, yes, in my mind, it needs to be a movement). Then I realized that there was something even more important that we writers need to think about before we even start worrying about whether we’re treating our readers like grunting, monosyllabic, pseudo-humans. We need to worry about telling out story without constraints.
It’s an interesting predicament we find ourselves in, as writers. We’re creative beings at the core, but we also want to make money out of our craft. Because the idea of the starving artist is only appealing when it doesn’t actually materialize (after all, cheap ramen noodles only taste good for the first five days you eat them for every meal), we constantly obsess about selling books, increasing our sales rank, and making our work more appealing, widely known, universally praised. The ideal of the free-spirited artist is constantly at odds with the fear of dishearteningly low balances our royalty reports (or, even worse, our bank accounts). Therefore, before we even put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—we start obsessing about all the “rules for writing a good novel” that we’ve heard being spouted in books, blogs, and articles:
- Never start a story with the weather.
- Never start a story with a character waking up.
- Show, don’t tell.
- Keep your dialogue tags simple.
- Keep your language simple.
- Don’t write in the first person.
- Don’t write in the present tense.
- Don’t have a prologue.
- Don’t change points of view.
- Make your main character likable.
- Don’t leave your plot unresolved.
And on. And on. And on. Just Google “rules for writers.” It seems that there’s a rule for every single potential beginning, middle, or end of any kind of work, whether in verse or prose. There are rules for dialogue, rules for exposition, rules for sentence construction, rules for starting (or ending) a story, rules for character development. Rules, rules, rules.
Too bad I can cite at least one exceptionally successful novel that broke at least one of each rule I could find—and, often, many, many more.
Sure, there are plenty of unsuccessful novels that broke the rules, too. I’m familiar with that counterargument. The ones that broke the rules are the exception. Yes, I’ve heard that, too. And I’m not saying that by breaking the rules you’ll be successful.
What I’m saying is that by following the rules, you’re not guaranteeing yourself success, either.
Success in the writing world is a tricky, tricky thing. It is 10% perspiration, 10% hard work, and 80% pure unadulterated luck. You never know what’s going to make a successful novel. No one knows. If we knew, this industry wouldn’t be quite so damn hard to break into.
What I do know is this: If you’re more worried about following the rules than you are about writing your story, then you’re not being true to yourself. Or your story. In fact, you’re being downright rude to yourself and your story.
If there is one thing every writer should do is write the story they want to write, rules be damned. You want to write a prologue? Write a prologue! You want to change points of view? Do it! Want to write in the first person? Knock yourself out! Want to have a description-driven novel? Go ahead!
SCREW THE RULES.
If everyone followed the rules, we’d be reading the same dull, trite story over and over. No one would have a unique voice. All our characters would “say” things, never “spout” them. They would “yell,” but never “exclaim.” We’d be drowning in dialogue, yet know precious little about the immediate surroundings where the dialogue is taking place. And we would never, ever know about the weather.
Instead of worrying about the rules, worry about writing your story the way you want to write it. Instead of wringing your hands over whether the critics will call you out for your use of lengthy descriptions, worry about making sure your readers can picture with clarity where your action is taking place. Instead of worrying about your dialogue tags, worry about making sure your characters say things the way you want to say them.
Just like you don’t want to treat your readers like idiots, don’t treat your story, and yourself, like a second-class citizen. Tell your story how you want to tell it—how it deserves to be told. Throw caution to the wind. Let the chips fall where they may.
And when you become massively successful, smile a secret smile—because, like Frank Sinatra, you did it your way.
Bio: Anne Chaconas was born in Central America, educated in the U.S. Northeast, moved to the Deep South for love, and is currently living on the East Coast (and spends most of her time missing winter). Her awesome husband, adorable daughter, three rambunctious cats, and two very adoring dogs keep her busy. Her debut novel, Salve Regina, will be available this fall. In addition to being a writer of things serious (and, sometimes, not-to-serious), she is also a snarky mommy blogger and a book reviewer extraordinaire. You can find her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and entirely too many other social networking sites